On December 21, 1975, six militants who called themselves the “Arm of the Arab Revolution” attacked the semi-annual meeting of OPEC leaders in Vienna, Austria, and took more than sixty hostages. The Arm of the Arab Revolution, who were led by a Venezuelan man named Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, then divided the hostages into three groups. Delegates from militant Arab countries like Libya and Algeria were moved to the left side of the room near the door. Delegates from neutral countries like Nigeria and Venezuela were left in the middle. Delegates from countries allied to Israel and to the United States were moved to the right side of the room near a table wired with explosives.
You probably haven’t heard the name Ilich Ramírez Sánchez. You might be familiar with his nome de guerre, Carlos. Carlos, directed by the French filmmaker Olivier Assayas, is a six hour mini-series detailing the life of Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, nicknamed Carlos the Jackal by the western press, from his rise as an elite “soldier” for Waddie Haddad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in the early 1970s to his capture in Sudan in 1994. Carlos and his associates, who included German Red Brigade members Hans-Joachim Klein (“Angie”) and Gabriele Kröcher-Tiedemann (“Nada”), took sixty hostages as bargaining chips, but they were really only interested in two, Jamshid Amouzegar and Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the oil ministers of Iran and Saudi Arabia, two countries the PFLP considered to have betrayed the cause of the Palestinians.
The plan, which was to demand an airliner from the government of Austria, then fly to Iraq and the Protection of Saddam Hussein, shoot Amouzegar and Yamani, then release the rest of the hostages when they were no longer needed as leverage, didn’t quite work out. First Carlos and his people mistakenly shot a Libyan economist. Then for reasons the miniseries doesn’t quite make clear, they asked for a DC-9, a plane not cabable of flying non-stop from Vienna to Baghdad, instead of a Boeing 707, which was. Finally they accepted an offer from Houari Boumediene the President of Algeria to land in Algiers, unload Hans-Joachim Klein, who had been badly wounded, refuel, and fly to Libya. Thinking they would be welcome in Tripoli, Carlos and his associates released the hostages from the neutral and friendly countries to Boumediene, but were denied political asylum from Muammar Gaddafi, who was still angry about the death of a Libyan citizen in Vienna. They then flew back to Algiers, and attempted to negotiate with Boumediene, but Boumediene, who had been in touch with the Chancellor of Austria all along, threatened to storm the plane if Carlos went through with the plan to murder Amouzegar and Yamani. Over the loud protests of Kröcher-Tiedemann and the of his group, Carlos accepted a face saving deal with the Algerians. He would release Amouzegar and Yamani. In exchange the Arm of the Arab Revolution would be paid $20 million dollars, and Carlos and his associates would be allowed to go free.
Whatever you think about the idea of holding innocent, and sometimes not so innocent, people at gunpoint, you have to admit that Carlos and the Arm of the Arab Revolution, pulled off quite a coup in Vienna. Try to imagine a group of right-wing, American libertarians taking the New York Board of the Federal Reserve hostage, then getting away with $20 million dollars, and their lives, and you’ll see what I mean. Carlos, the privileged son of a left-wing, but bourgeois South American lawyer, was a skilled, nervy guerilla fighter who put his money where his mouth was. Nevertheless, as Assayas makes clear, Carlos embodied one of the worst traits of the 1960s left, egotism. In his leather jacket and Che Guevera style beret, Edgar Ramírez, the actor who plays Carlos, is an incredibly charismatic presence, but that’s the point. He’s too charismatic. He’s in love with the image of himself as a badass revolutionary, a rock star with a sub-machine gun, not with the idea of justice for the West Bank and Gaza. Richard Estes of Counterpunch criticizes Olivier Assayas for being “orientalist” even racist in his depiction of “Carlos and his European allies as initially more supportive of the Palestinian cause than the Palestinians themselves,” but I think he’s wrong. Waddie Haddad of the PFLP may not be a sympathetic character, but he’s onto Carlos from the very beginning. Carlos is not about Palestinian liberation. Carlos is about Carlos.
After Carlos declines to execute Amouzegar and Yamani, and die at the hands of the Algerian security forces, Waddie Haddad expels him from the PFLP, and he becomes a freelance mercenary. Between 1975 and his capture in 1994, life, for Carlos, for Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, is every young man’s dream. There’s an endless supply of guns and beautiful, oversexed German women. He gets to travel the world in search of adventure. He’s basically a Marxist James Bond, a secret agent with a license to kill. But as the radical spirit of the 1960s and the 1970s winds down, as the Communist bloc crumbles in the 1980s and 1990s, as Carlos ages from virile Che lookalike to a paunchy, middle-aged entrepreneur of armed struggle, we begin to wonder what it was all about in the first place. Carlos, like an aging rock star forever looking for the comeback he knows he’ll never have, begins to feel the walls close in all around him. He becomes persona non grata, first in Hungary and East Germany, then in Syria. Finally, in his 40s, an aging revolutionary long past his prime, he’s picked up in Sudan and delivered to the French police, who sentence him to life in prison. There he remains, to this day, as a cautionary tale to would-be professional revolutionaries. If you’re prepared to pick up a gun and shed human blood for a cause, you’d damned well better not forget what that cause is all about.
Note: It’s absolutely essential to watch the full, six hour version of Carlos, and not the edited, theatrical release. There’s a music to Carlos, to Assayas’ filmmaking in general, long stretches of banality punctuated by brief flashes of excitement, that takes time to unfold. Watching Carlos in one of the shorter cuts would be a bit like listening to the Clear Channel version of Light My Fire by The Doors, the one without the long keyboard solo in the middle. You’ll never understand exactly why Carlos kept looking for that fix, that next “big thing” that would bring him back to the glory days of the successful attack against OPEC in 1975, and he’ll come off, not as a fascinating monster, but as as just a monster.